At Fabbaloo, we receive messages from new startups in the 3D printing field daily, but many of them pursue business models that simply aren’t going to work without exceptional effort and ingenuity.
I certainly appreciate the huge efforts made by some to attempt to develop a business in the new world of 3D printing, but there’s far too many pursuing business styles that have been proven by others to not work very well.
Sure, it just might be possible to make some of these work, but it requires extreme ingenuity, connections, financial backing and a ton of work to make it succeed, but why bother doing so when you could spend your time inventing something truly new and unique for the industry? Here’s my list of seven “challenging” 3D print business models:
3D Model Sales: In this business, a set of (hopefully) unique 3D models is offered for online sale through digital download. The problem is that there are a) very few people requiring such 3D models as the sales of 3D printing equipment is still quite low, and b) many of those that have such equipment often create their own 3D models or are perfectly satisfied by printing items from free repositories. Not a good business to get into.
Basic 3D printer: This is a 3D printer with no particularly unique features that differentiate it from the literally hundreds of other options currently in the marketplace. I cannot tell you how many machines I’ve seen that are virtually indistinguishable from dozens of others. Some companies make an effort to have a specifically useful and unique feature or price point, but it is startling how many don’t and expect their machine to sell. They won’t.
3D Model Marketplace: A model marketplace involves designers placing their works for sale on a site and splitting the proceeds from sales with the site owner in some way. There are several challenges with this approach, the first being there are insufficient customers, as per “3D Model Sales” above. The second issue is that you must attract designers, which is incredibly difficult, as some designers, particularly the notable ones, wish to market their own works directly. Those designers that can be attracted are typically ones that push their works onto ALL such services, making yours just like the next one. If a marketplace were to be successful, it has to demonstrate huge volumes of sales to attract designers, but the inverse is also true.
Cheap 3D Printer Filament: Look! This filament is only USD$15 per kg! It sounds great until you use it, and then find that not only do all your prints fail, but your machine jams and catches on fire. Or worse. Cheap filament is something 3D printer operators do buy - but only once until they learn the lessons and then focus on slightly more expensive filament that has at least reasonable quality. Besides, the margins on low-cost filament are pretty low, obviously, and thus to be successful you have to have lots of sales, including repeat business. Which you won’t have.
Desktop Filament Machines: What a great idea! Take all those old plastic dragons you’ve printed over the years, grind them up into new filament and print more and better dragons! The problem is that making filament of sufficient quality to print reliably is incredibly difficult and usually requires precisely tuned factory-sized equipment. Yes, there ARE desktop machines that can grind up prints and make filament, but can you USE that filament successfully? Usually not. I’ve seen many such vendors at trade shows exhibiting small filament-making machines, and I never see them appear the following year. Besides, with the big plastics vendors coming the 3D print world with reasonably-priced, high-quality products, why would you want to make your own?
Desktop 3D Printers With Expensive Proprietary Cartridges: A few vendors have attempted to use this business model and have failed. The most notable would be the now-demised Cubify line from 3D Systems, where the price of their plastic was spectacularly higher than comparable generic filament. For those printing a lot of objects, the prospect of being locked into buying expensive cartridges endlessly - with the possibility of prices being raised in the future - is more than enough to scare them away from a machine purchase. On the other hand, reasonably priced cartridges are not necessarily a bad thing.
Oddball Composite Filaments: Ever since someone discovered you could mix PLA plastic with other materials to create interesting composite filaments we’ve seen an explosion of such materials, but some of them are a bit unusual. I’ve seen filaments made from coffee, coconut and even algae! These curious materials are just that - a curiosity and offer little additional function aside from a different color and attractive odor (except for the algae filament, which is quite the opposite). They’re a fad and a business expecting to make money selling large quantities of them is likely mistaken. It’s the kind of product adventurous folks buy once, but not again. Fortunately, these are typically a sideline product for filament vendors, who make their money on other products.
Is this the complete list of likely-to-fail 3D print businesses? By no means - the industry will surely develop many more and that’s the nature of open competition: everyone tries everything, and some stuff survives because it works.
But these won’t.